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Richard Serra is primarily recognized for his minimalist sculptural work. His large-scale and site-specific steel installations are shown worldwide in public spaces and international museums. Less known and rarely screened are the films and videos he made between 1968 and 1979. After experimenting with 16mm short films, in the early 1970s Serra became fascinated by the potential of the new video technology and produced a few videotapes.
For Serra, video is a public communication device. Consequently, his engagement with the newly available technology led him inevitably to broadcast video to television. He was primarily interested in video art’s capacity to expose the manipulative format of television: “Rather than just use video to document my art activities or my psyche… what I tried to do is to point to television’s esthetic.”
The paradigmatic piece of Serra’s television critique is the video Television Delivers People, which he made with Carlota Fay Schoolman in 1973. A series of messages scroll on the screen, on an electric blue background, accompanied by a Muzak soundtrack. The first message is ‘The product of Television, Commercial Television, is the Audience’. Television, like advertising, has developed a strong set of strategies to control and manipulate its viewers. This includes the use of specific sounds, colors, content, and language.
‘Mass media means that a medium can deliver masses of people’, Serra’s video states. ‘You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer…he consumes you.’ Also, ‘You are the end product.’ The terms ‘consumer’ and ‘product’ are used in an unusual way. Their relative positions and relationship to each other is turned upside down. The audience is not even presented as an audience of ‘consumers’, as it normally is, but as the end product of a process of brainwashing through which education, information, and entertainment are packaged and presented as an advertising campaign – not, however, to sell products, but to wrap up the ultimate product: the audience itself.
Television Delivers People was made in the New York studio of WNET, who also broadcast it. The video was also shown in Chicago on WTTW, receiving reviews by the generic press. Even though it did not disrupt television, it certainly changed its usual mode of operation for roughly seven minutes, enacting a metalinguistic intervention of counter-information. In the hands of Serra, video assumes the position of an anti-establishment medium. However, Serra’s operation does not go so far as to put the camera in the streets or to idealize an alternative to television; nonetheless, it explicitly exposes the structure of commercial television.
“‘Technology is a form of toolmaking, body extension. Technology is not art and not invention. It does not concern itself with the undefined, the inexplicable. It deals with the affirmation of its own making. Technology is what we do to the Black Panthers and the Vietnamese under the guise of advancement in a materialistic theology.’ I wrote that statement in 1970 for the catalogue of Art and Technology at the LA County Museum. It reflects my political responsibility to the public— not that I have any idealistic notions of swaying the masses through television. I think commercial TV is basically show business, and that means show business is used to reflect corporate America's interests. The networks put out programs that make the viewer feel more secure about his home, city, state - that America is the best place to be. And news broadcasts use the same show business techniques to convey information which 80% of the people believe . . . show business is a propagandistic device. It's all a lot of shit. Listen, I know, that TV consciousness was developed in the sixties. And yet, in 1974, people still accept what they see on their TV sets as valid information...
My concern in making tapes right now is to attempt to expose the structure of commercial television. Maybe Television Delivers People did so in a some-what didactic manner—it's definitely an anti-administration tape— not unlike Godard in Vladmir and Rosa. I've always thought that media information ought to allow for choice and options, and at present there's absolutely no choice because network TV is government-controlled. ‘When the '72 election was being rigged, Nixon had the Young Republicans hand-picked to clap on cue with that Sammy Davis handshake—good TV. Now, although everyone knew it was a great masquerade...”
Recalling the artist’s public interventions, like the steel ring embedded into a derelict street of the Bronx of 1970 and later the Tilted Arc, they are in direct association with the manner that Television Delivers People was conceived: as a way to use art to convey a social message directed to a generic audience of consumers, to make them realize they are under control of a series of power systems and to make them understand their potential and responsibility as agents of change.
Serra suggested that our daily environment, like the exhibition space, is controlled by systems of power (politics, economy, mass media) which manipulate us and make us their product. Another message from Television Delivers People is ‘Popular Entertainment is basically propaganda for the status quo’, which suggests that media entertainment is a strategy adopted by governments and corporations to control the citizens of a given country.